Lost Railways of The Grand Trunk

There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun.
Long before the white man and long before the wheel,
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real.
But time has no beginnings and history has no bounds,
As to this verdant country they came from all around.
For they looked in the future and what did they see,
They saw an iron road runnin’ from the sea to the sea.

A pair of glistening rails under the morning sun faced us; across them an auto crushing junkyard with all the clinking and rattling echoes rumbling our eardrums. A ghostly limestone hut stood abandoned in the near distance towards our left, and an old caboose rusting in red parked on our immediate right. These were the scenes, dear reader, which populated our immediate landscape that autumn morning. In this setting, caboose stood conspicuous, partly owing to its color and in part because of the letters inscribed on it in bold. Amelia read out aloud “Chances Shorten Lives” and looked towards me puzzled. She was there with me, purportedly on an escapade to join her father’s ventures, but in reality it was an escape from the monotonous weekend mornings in bed. So this time, Amelia was there with me, trying to make a sense of it all, in the quiet and small town of St Mary’s, a trip that was inspired by her father’s (to quote her exact words) ‘cheesy tagline’ of ‘Railways Romance’. And to top it all there was this phrase on a railway caboose ‘Chances Shorten Lives’. “What do these words mean there Baba?”, she said, a question that took me to the past, down the memory lane, into a world of ‘very familiar’ inscriptions on railway carriages.

Vintage Warning Sign - Pakistan Railways

Between late 1960s to late 1990s, were the celebrated years of Electric Traction System (ETS) on Pakistan Railways’ a little under 300 kms stretch of Khanewal – Lahore sub-section. The national rail carrier back then, proudly operated Electric Locomotives powered by the Overhead Electric Traction Cable (OETC). The romance was short lived and instead of expanding upon this efficient and economic system, Pakistan Railways through its covert and corrupt ways, quite unceremoniously rolled back the electric operation in 2007 and eventually abolished it in 2010. The yesteryear railway carriages that traveled through “Khanewal-Lahore-Khanewal” subsection on their route, had a vintage warning, stencil-cut in Urdu and painted in black. The opposite picture is a reproduction of the same, and it would translate to “Warning: The route between Lahore – Khanewal section has live electric current running through overhead wires. Passengers are therefore requested not to travel atop the train’s roof or standing by the carriage doors.” I remember my father, a railway veteran, explaining to me (then a young traveler fascinated by the charms of railway) that the ‘don’t travel standing by the carriage doors’ part of the warning was to avoid the potential danger of passengers being struck by the poles hoisting the electric wires. These poles were frequent and very close to the railway line, whooshing past the coaches in close vicinity as the train sped through them. It’s one of the durable memories from the past that has stayed with me, side by side the romance of railways that I, so dearly carry on me.

GTW 79176 – Chances Shorten Lives

Coming back to the present, dear reader, there I was facing a Grand Trunk Caboose, passing on the railway wisdom to a third generation, as I explained the caution statement “Chances Shorten Lives” to my daughter. Amelia was smart enough to understand that it was a precaution advertised for public to take railways as a serious business and do not take chances with the moving carriages as it had potentially fatal consequences. It was common for such warnings to become an inalienable part of visible signage, even on the carriages from the early days. The caboose, numbered GTW 79176, belonged to the legendary Grand Trunk Railways (GTR) and so was the Junction Station of St Mary’s where we stood that morning. The mighty Grand Trunk Railway Co. appeared on Canadian railway canvas around mid 19th century, whereby it had undertaken the pioneer task of building a trunk line between Toronto and Montreal. The company in the years to come was to expand into one of the largest railway operators in the province of Ontario. Junction Station of St Mary’s is situated on the section of Grand Trunk line between Toronto to the border town of Sarnia and today survives abandoned on a ghost railway track.

Canada Railway and the Grand Trunk

Woven into the colourful tapestry of the railways' story is the history of Canada's birth as a nation, for it was the simmering band of steel that first welded together the far-flung regions of the young dominion. Railways of Canada A Pictorial History by Nick and Helma Mika

History of Railways in Canada, quite interestingly, predates Canada acquiring the status of a country. Railways were very much in business as early as 1836, whereas the Great White North became the Dominion of Canada as late as 1867. What started as a “portage to join the waterways of the Prairies”, was to expand in to a developed rail network taking the Canadian Farmers’ produce to US markets. Grand Trunk Railway was one of the key players in the said expansion. GTR as a company was incorporated in 1852 and came in with a grand promise of laying a trunk line across Canada’s two provinces, Quebec and Ontario. In 1855 the Toronto – Montreal portion was opened to railway traffic. By 1857 the next section from Toronto to the border town of Sarnia was operational as well. In later years the railway line crossed border to Port Huron and beyond. Having reached Chicago at one time, this trunk line originating from Portland, Maine covered over 1100 miles of railway empire that belonged to Grand Trunk Railways. The Grand Trunk was not the only player in the arena, as there were other prominent railways one of which was Great Western, initially a competitor but later incorporated by the Grand Truck. What made Grand Trunk different from the rest were two prime factors. One: GT was Canada’s first trunk line and Two: In contrast to following the prevalent American practices of cheap and sub-standard railway structures, Grand Trunk, in an endeavour to provide quality service to Canadians, opted to follow the British Style of elegantly built, design worthy and stylish, but costly railway stations. Victorian style wide structures, built in stone and wood, with sloping roofs and french windows populated the railway landscape across Montreal – Toronto – Sarnia trunk line and later on the other lines acquired by the Grand Trunk in the subsequent years. The Junction Station in the Town of St Mary’s is one of the iconic stations built by Grand Trunk and one of the very few which stand preserved in their original form. Dear readers, the round arched openings with their original French doors and transoms bear testimony to this.

The Junction Station in the Town of St Mary’s

The thing that many Canadians remember most about waiting for the train is the room where they waited. Outside the home, Canadians frequented the station waiting room more than any other room in their communities. They knew its smell, the smell of the wood stove in the winter, or the kerosene from the lamp. The Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore by Ron Brown

Ron Brown, a railway enthusiast and an undisputable authority on the Grand Trunk mentions that when the company decided to adapt to British design for its quality built stations, they in principle copied the design of the station at Kenilworth, England. The blue print that got replicated, consisted of shallow sloping roofs and French windows on all sides. The Junction Station in the Town of St Mary’s was built in 1858 and replicates the British design followed by the Grand Trunk for its early stations.  It was constructed of limestone, a famous product of the Town of St Mary’s itself and served as a first class wayside station on Toronto – Sarnia Line. The route itself is now a ghost of past times as the Grand Trunk tracks once passing to the western side of the station were lifted during late 20th century as the rail operation was abandoned. The railway line pictured above lies on the eastern side of the Junction and are in fact the tracks of London – Kitchener – Toronto route, where a VIA rail operation is now served by the Station of St Mary’s (located almost in the town’s center). The Junction Station sits abandoned, and has been designated as a heritage site, and was under renovation once me and Amelia visited the place. Our access to inside the station was prevented owing to the restoration works, but we did manage to get a bit intimate to the outer architecture. Constructed on a rectangular footprint the Station remarkably preserves the original design and materials and in that is one of the very few stations of Ontario so well preserved through time. The Junction was even spared the addition of a “telegraphers’ bay”, an addition that was asymmetrically incorporated to all stations during 1890s after the advent of telegraphy into railways. And that puts into picture our famous inventor Thomas Alva Edison, who worked as a telegraphic operator for a while, but dear reader, we will come to that bit of our story in a while. There was much of architectural finesse to be appreciated on the station building. The solid wall limestone construction had the details of woodwork aptly showcased. One striking feature was the round arched openings that still had French windows with transoms, quite contrary to the popular practice of conversion of these to window sills in almost all other stations of Grand Trunk. Junction station in all its sobriety stands firm as a display of finesse in masonry, may it be the finely coursed chimneys or the smooth keystones above the door openings. A historical caboose of Grand Trunk stands on tracks beside the station and me and Amelia took our turns of looking through the door glass appreciating the original interior in simple and traditionally ‘green’ color of seat cushions and the ‘white’ of the walls. But, the icing on the cake, dear reader, was the fact that Edison once worked at the St Mary’s Junction Station, and he was a telegraph operator here …

[row][column md=”4″] The French Windows
[/column][column md=”4″] The Corner View
[/column][column md=”4″] GTW Caboose

Edison Worked Here!

At age 12, Thomas Alva Edison, our great inventor, is said to have had a job with Grand Trunk as a ‘news butch’. He was selling newspapers and confections along the Grand Trunk Railroad between Port Huron and Detroit. At the age of 15 (and the year was 1862) Edison had bought a used printing press and was publishing Weekly Herald and charging his loyal customers a subscription fee of 8 cents a month. It was a weekly that published local news, gossip, announcements and train schedules, even jokes. Edison published the newspaper in an empty baggage car on the Grand Trunk, so it became the first newspaper to be printed on a moving train. It was Edison’s fascination with telegraphy and a reported incident whereby he had saved a kid from a moving train that paved the way for his later employment as a telegrapher with The Grand Trunk. The boy, who was reportedly saved by Edison, was the son of James MacKenzie, station master at Stratford Railway Station of Grand Trunk. It was Spring of 1863 when Edison started as a night telegrapher at the same railway station for a salary of $25 a month. Around the same time, for a little while, Edison worked in an identical capacity at St Mary’s Junction Station. A near collision between a freight and a passenger train would later cost him his job. With the fear of being fired, Edison would head back to US and It would be years later that Grand Trunk will present his final pay cheque of $28 to Edison’s father in a ceremony at Port Huron.

Edison would eventually reach out and settle at Boston, a place where the great inventor would shine on the pages of history. But, for now we are in late 1800s and our Tom (the name then self-acquired by Edison) worked at St Mary’s as a telegrapher, preferring night shifts as the less busy hours would allow him time and concentrations for other loves of his life, mainly reading and experimenting with chemicals. Today, at 500 Edison Parkway (under Blue Water Bridge), Port Huron in Saint Clair County, and that dear reader, is precisely the Canada – US border, there is the historic Fort Gratiot depot that was built by Grand Trunk Railway in 1858. It’s the actual depot from where Thomas Edison worked as a news hawker between 1859 and 1863. It now houses Thomas Edison Depot Museum. Outside the museum is a restored baggage car on a spur of railroad track. The baggage car houses a recreated chemistry lab and printing shop, the two aspirations of young Edison. At a short distance there is a statue of young Edison in the news-hawker attire. Port Huron Museum website claims to have recreated a user experience based on “Edison’s scientific principles: electricity, communication, magnetism, and energy.”

The Grand Trunk Trail

The year 1918 marked the first time in Ontario that more tracks were lifted than were laid. It was also the year that the Canadian National Railway (CNR) was created to own and operate the country's bankrupt rail lines. In Search of Grand Trunk: Ghost Rail Lines in Ontario, Ron Brown

Fast paced was the boom of Railways in Canada and identical was the downfall that came quite unexpectedly. Grank Trunk, the largest operator of railway tracks in the province of Ontario, owing to multiple reasons, was bankrupt and so were the other operators. An ever increasing bias towards road transportation further added to the rail operators’ woes. It was the year 1955, that the Canadian Government turned to the Trucking operations for the mail contracts and that was a major driver towards losing profitability and looking for operational cutbacks. In about 25 years, an identical story was to repeat itself in a distant land of Pakistan, whereby a Military backed National Logistics Cell (NLC) took over the freight operations from Pakistan Railways, driving in the (almost) final nail to the coffin of a crumbling national carrier. Coming back to Canada, there were other reasons for consolidating a widely redundant rail network to a handful of operational lines. The auto age, personal travel conveyances, real estate reaching out to suburbia away from the main city hubs hosting the Railway Stations, were to name a few. The Grand Trunk Line too fell victim to the consolidating operation and it was the year 1989 that the tracks linking Toronto – Sarnia via the Town of St Mary’s were lifted after a service of over a 130 years. This put into doubt the future of one of the two historic railway landmarks, Junction Station of St Mary’s and The Sarnia Bridge over River Thames. The Sarnia Bridge along with the London Bridge were built in 1858 and immediately came to be known as “the greatest ornament in engineering to any town in Canada West”. The London bridge is still functional on London – Toronto railway line, whereas the Sarnia Bridge was preserved through a visionary step undertaken by the town council of St Mary’s. The town of St Mary’s purchased from Canadian National Railway, not only the Sarnia Bridge but the entire right of way of Grand Trunk line passing within the town. Now on this stretch of around 3 kms lies the paved and accessible walking trail. Formally opened to public in 1996, this walkway originates from Glass Street, a little west of the old Junction Station on the north-east corner of St Mary’s and terminates at Thames Road, on the western fringe of the town. A real treat on the trail is the boardwalk over Sarnia Bridge offering splendid view of the countryside over the shoulders of River Thames. The wooden planks of the boardwalk on their edges bear the brass plates with the names of the people who contributed to make the project a reality. Towards the western end of the bridge is a small pillar with brass plates highlighting the historical significance of the trail.

[row][column md=”4″] The Walkway
[/column]][column md=”4″] The Stairs
[/column]][column md=”4″] The Monument

It was a unanimous agreement between me and Amelia, that the bridge-walk was the prime highlight of our tour that morning to explore the rail history in the town of St Mary’s. We were greeted by the morning walkers as the welcome tourists from the neighboring city of London. The bridge is majestic and so are the massive limestone pillars with iron girders, standing solid and holding atop what is now a walkway, but not very far back into history, were the railway tracks where the trains of the Grand Trunk passed in all the grandeur and magnificence which is so romantically associated with the train journeys. Train journeys, dear reader, that cannot be replicated by anything, anywhere.

Books & Authors

The opening lines excerpted from “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”, Gordon Lightfoot, Art by Ian Wallace, Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, Toronto Berkeley, 2010
“The Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore”, Ron Brown, Lynx Images, 1998
“Railways of Canada, A Pictorial History”, Nick & Helma Mika, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, Toronto Montreal, 1972
“In Search of The Grand Trunk, Ghost Rail Lines in Ontario”, Ron Brown, Dundurn Natural Heritage, Toronto, 2011
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author bio

Imran Saeed

I am a teller of old tales. History, folklore, military, and more. Mostly covering Pakistan, my homeland, but also the Great White North, where I am currently settled.
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